Writing About West Branch School

Visits to all of our field sites in Sociology 215 are meant to do three things:

(1) Encourage you to think about readings and class topics and to use those materials in your discussion of the field experience;
(2) Raise issues for you about participation in community life and political activity and to discuss how engagement and social responsibility, or disengagement and social irresponsibility happen;
(3) Give you field experiences to prepare you for other courses that will have more intensive field experiences, like Anthropology/Sociology 201.

Your paper is not meant to be long. Three or four pages is enough. You also should not try to write about all of the themes given below. Pick your focus, state it, and give lots of description and detail to develop your points.

One of the most important things about the time you spend observing is that you should not be passive. Be involved in activities and, most importantly, talk to people. Try especially to meet people other than the hosts who bring us into the settings. In addition to the main participants in the program (the kids in a school), seek out and talk to some of the people who are more in the background---office people, family members, custodial staff. Look at the questions given for each assignment and ask people in the setting what they think about the issues that are listed.

Asking you to visit West Branch School has three objectives.

1. The first is to encourage you to think about what education is for.

You have gone through a primary and secondary education experience, and you presently are immersed in another sort of intensive education at Bucknell. You also know lots of other people who have had educational experiences of various kinds, and from this you have internalized a variety of ideas about what education should do and be. As you observe at West Branch School, pay attention to what stands out for you about what education means at this school. How are these things different from or similar to what you have experienced in the past. It is important for you to be descriptive and specific as you tell about things that catch your attention at the school. Do not just make broad, general statements.

Some of what you want to write about will just be describing your personal response to this trip. Try to step back from the experience and think about values or general purposes and principles. For example, in class people wondered about how WBS kids would do once they entered the impersonal world of public schools. To ask the question this way implies that you have some ideas about cause and effect that are played out in public schools. They are impersonal, bureaucratic, objective, and not-family places. You might want to argue (as Robert Dreeben does in On What Is Learned in School) that one of the major functions of the lower elementary grades is to teach children how to function in an impersonal, non-affectively intense environment. The home is the opposite---it is personal, affectively intense, and made up of a particular cast of characters, not of objective roles like "teacher". West Branch School's operating philosophy seems at odds with Dreeben's, and maybe that is related to our class members' suspicions that WBS kids would not adapt well to public schools once they leave. Having visited the school, what do you think?

2. The second objective is for you to think further about whether West Branch School should be a charter school.

I'd really prefer that you NOT make this your focus, because we have already talked about this theme. However, you may run into some things that make you want to revisit our earlier discussion. Kozol argues that exclusive arrangements allow energetic, intelligent, involved families to keep themselves separate from public schools, or from the parts of public schools that are most troublesome. We need energetic families to stay in the public schools to act as advocates and to be vanguards of reform and change.

Bryk says that motivated low-income families should have quality educational opportunities for their children and should not have to be dragged down by unmotivated and negative other students. Bryk also says that schools should be oriented to the whole lives of children, that they ought to involve families, and that teachers should be motivated by a passion for teaching and engaging with students. He says that does not usually happen in public schools, but it does happen in the Catholic schools he observed.

We might add to these opposed concern a question about whether private schools like West Branch have energy in part because they are private. Is the public system so bureaucratic that it would force West Branch to give up the things that make it energetic and inclusive? Maybe one of the things that makes West Branch work is precisely that it is so hard to find funding and to keep it going.

3. The third objective is for you to notice and learn about how discipline and social control work at West Branch, being mindful of how you think it operates in other schools.

Later in the term we will be talking about how discipline and social control in schools relates to delinquency. You might look at the readings for Nov 14, Nov 16, and Nov 19. The movie Stand and Deliver scheduled for after Thanksgiving is also relevant. We see two things. One is an attitude by school officials that they are supposed to lay down rules, expect kids to obey, but not expect kids to be enthusiastic, involved, or supportive of school demands and discipline. The other is that kids are slightly disengaged and that this is linked to an attitude of resistance and sometimes of hostility on the part especially of lower income and minority kids.

Watch out for instances where teachers or other adults exercise disciplinary authority, where kids relate to discipline, or where conflicts occur and are dealt with. Be on the lookout especially for a "small meeting". You might look back at the West Branch video for an explanation of the small meeting.

How do the attitudes of teachers and students with respect to discipline differ from what our other sources tell us prevails as the dominant mode of discipline in schools? Why does this difference matter?

On this last point, you might compare West Branch's system of discipline and control to that prevailing at Bucknell. Are they similar or different? What effects do you notice flowing from each system?